It's easier to find blame than the root causes

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 December, 2008, 12:00am

Precipitated by the Asian financial turmoil in late 1997, the economic crisis which engulfed Hong Kong swiftly spilled into the political arena. With the Tung Chee-hwa administration beset by policy blunders and governance fiascos, a political culture of blame and witch-hunting took root.

The public housing short-piling scandal resulted in the resignation of then Housing Authority chairwoman Rosanna Wong Yick-ming, which set the scene for the introduction of the political accountability system in the second Tung administration.

Calls for heads to roll during governance debacles became a regular feature. The first 13 months of Mr Tung's second term saw a few heads topple, and some were bowed.

The then financial services and treasury minister, Frederick Ma Si-hang, apologised for his role in the so-called 'penny stock' saga. The aftermath of the July 1 rally in 2003 saw the departure of financial secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung, security chief Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and health minister Yeoh Eng-kiong.

Mr Tung, who was blamed for the first governance crisis since the handover, stood down in 2005.

This history of political turbulence is worth recalling at a time when Hong Kong, already hit by recession, is entering stormy political waters. Citing the 'blame syndrome' prevalent in British politics, Executive Councillor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, in a Chinese-language newspaper article last week, cautioned against excessive blame in Hong Kong politics.

Society, he fears, will not be able to learn from crises to embark on reforms if government performance is constrained by a culture of doubt and blame.

The government, however, is no stranger to the blame syndrome. Suffering from a plunge in popularity ratings, the Tsang administration has pointed to the media and political parties for fuelling government-bashing sentiments.

Officials say people who support the government when it does the right thing have been reluctant to come out to counterbalance the noise of opposition. Moreover, they are adamant that a rise in government unpopularity is a regional and global phenomenon.

With its popularity remaining low, the government should not be surprised that its so-called political allies have joined the chorus of criticism on matters such as the regulation of financial products in the wake of the Lehman-linked minibonds saga.

And legislators representing different political interests have been united in criticising the government's failure to heed public opinion on issues like the old-age allowance. One long-standing complaint from political parties is that the government is reluctant to give the legislature a bigger say, if not more powers, in policy formulation.

While increasingly unhappy about the government's performance, the public has not pinned high hopes on elected representatives in the Legislative Council. Indeed, some blame political parties for merely seeking to score points by initiating an investigation into the minibonds saga. They fear it will only bring more troubles to the already jittery community.

It is hard to tell whether the investigation into the minibonds saga and the Leung Chin-man employment case will become a witch-hunt that ends with demands for heads to roll.

When things go wrong, it is human nature to blame others. But, clearly, this does not help solve a problem.

The feelings of relief and hope following Mr Tung's resignation came about because of a misplaced sense of optimism that such a move would be a cure-all for Hong Kong.

With that in mind, a fundamental rethink by the government and society about the deficiencies and inadequacies in the political system and process can help avoid a perpetual cycle of cynicism and blame.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large.